How Republicans lose by winning
By: Todd S. Purdum
May 22, 2014 05:02 AM EDT
It’s the predominant paradox of contemporary American politics: If Republicans prevail in this year’s midterm congressional elections, it will be because of their party’s sharp-edged stances on topics like abortion and Benghazi, Obamacare and immigration, gay marriage and the minimum wage — issues that energize the GOP’s core base of support.
But if Republicans lose the race for the White House in 2016, it will be because of their party’s polarizing, out-of-step stances on those very same issues, which alienate much of the broader electorate the GOP needs to win a national contest in a country whose demographics and political realities are shifting under its feet.
Establishment Republicans had a good night in Tuesday’s round of primaries, but they did so in part by adopting positions at odds with the long-term need to broaden the party’s support and move away from litmus-test issues. A wide range of Republicans see the party courting the same disaster it did in 2012, playing a base game that will keep it shut out of the White House.
“The Republican Party has essentially now two wings: a congressional wing and the national wing,” the veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff said at a recent Pew Research Center forum on so-called millennial voters, those from 18 to 29 years of age. The congressional wing is thriving, especially in the South, in districts that are 75 percent, or even 80 percent, white, and where every incumbent’s worst fear is a challenge from the right.
But McInturff summed up the national party’s prospects with an old line from Mr. T in “Rocky III”: “Prediction? Pain!” He said the party’s “genetic instinct” is that younger voters don’t vote, and too many Republicans don’t understand the coming demographic wave. “Why am I a Republican?” he asked. “I believe in the power of markets. The marketplace is, you will lose — keep losing national elections — until you keep up.”
The Republicans have faced this problem before, most recently in the 2012 presidential contest. A prolonged GOP primary in which contenders sought to prove their conservative bona fides — and a subsequent airing of nominee Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments — left the party vulnerable to Democratic attacks. But the ideological divide within the Republican Party, and between its most conservative wing and the wider electorate, is sharper and starker than ever.
Republican House members seeking reelection may well benefit from their lockstep opposition to raising the minimum wage this year. But three past and future presidential contenders — Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum — recently called that a losing proposition in the longer term. “Republicans may benefit from near-term tail winds this fall,” as Pawlenty put it, “but the demographic reality is that diverse voters have a diminishing view of Republicans and that needs to be addressed.”
Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), under challenge from the tea party wing in safely Republican states, may help themselves this year with their support for a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks. But the hangover from their party’s identification with such a position may well produce a backlash in battleground presidential states two years from now.
Republican House members seeking reelection may well benefit from railing against the Affordable Care Act, which nearly half of voters in a new POLITICO poll of the most competitive House districts and Senate states favor repealing outright. But overturning a law that has now enrolled millions of Americans, and given many of them health coverage they could not obtain before, will not be a winning proposition in 2016.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) may make hay with his coming House hearings on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But even such prominent conservative voices as Charles Krauthammer have warned that Republicans risk playing with fire if they are seen as playing politics with a tragedy.
The Arizona Republican Party may satisfy its most vocal wing by censuring Sen. John McCain, as it did this winter, for an insufficiently conservative record on immigration. But congressional Republicans’ refusal to grapple with a comprehensive immigration overhaul that provides a path to legal residence for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here will not help the party in the most competitive districts around the country, where the recent POLITICO poll showed nearly two-thirds of Republicans back a comprehensive approach.
“The Republicans in Washington are just treading water,” Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “They think, we’re getting a wave, we just have to sort of bob along, the wave is going to carry us along. I get nervous when I see that.” Kristol went on to criticize “the failure of the Republican leadership, especially in the House, to have an agenda, to push the issues, to go populist.”
But the House leadership has at times sounded just as frustrated.
“We get elected to solve problems, and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to,” House Speaker John Boehner recently complained.
Most Democrats dread the prospect of a Republican takeover of the Senate, which would give both houses of Congress subpoena power over the White House and make President Barack Obama’s last two years in office an unshirted hell. But there is a case to be made that even if Republicans consolidated their power on the east end of Constitution Avenue, the party’s hard-core and nihilist caucuses would prevent them from adopting an affirmative agenda that could appeal to voters in 2016.
“When the House Republicans came to power in 2010, they ran on the economy and all these other things, and the first thing they did was abortion bills,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. “I’m very supportive of us winning the Senate, but there’s an argument that losing the Senate is not the worst catastrophe in the world. The structural problem they have right now is they’re a congressional party, so they can’t make national party decisions.”
The GOP’s prospective 2016 field will face the same problem. For example, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, seen by many stalwarts as the perhaps the party’s best hope, would be square in the cross-hairs of the tea party wing, not least for his longstanding support for the Common Core educational curriculum, long anathema to such activists.
On questions like climate change and gay marriage, pollster McInturff said, younger voters no longer believe there is anything to argue about. He summed up their views as: “‘We wouldn’t fight about that. That’s just presumed to be true.’”
Thomas Mann, the veteran political scientist and Congress-watcher at the Brookings Institution, said that, at the moment, the Republicans are “simply not a presidential party.”
“Republicans managed to dominate the White House for a long time, and then hold on even in a period when Democrats were doing better, by avoiding this kind of extreme behavior, nominating someone like Bush, who could say the words ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘immigration reform,’’’ Mann said. “And because he was in the White House, Republicans in Congress didn’t give him too much trouble about it, they just didn’t do the things he wanted. They were happy to have him advance their tax cut agenda, and then when it all collapsed with Iraq and the economy, they turned on him.”
The twist, Mann said, is that Republicans almost certainly don’t even need to stake out such extreme positions to prevail this year. “The House, it’s almost a given, “ he said, “and in the Senate, it just depends on whether we get an economic tick or not.”
But a fierce debate is already underway within the GOP over whether even a Republican victory this November would be a conservative enough posture. A group coordinated by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and former Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) convened outside Washington last week to draft a manifesto calling on the party to “recommit” itself to bedrock conservative principles — including strict opposition to illegal immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion.
The Democrats have plenty of problems of their own, beginning with how to defend the president’s signature achievement, the health care law, in the face of lingering doubts about it. The Democratic nominee in 2016 will effectively be running for a third term, and if Obama’s second ends in a stalemate with Congress and an economy that is not producing jobs at a more robust pace, he (or she) will face a tough fight. Thirty years ago, the Democrats faced bitter internal divisions between liberal and moderate wings, divisions that made it easy for them to hold onto Congress but hard to win the White House.
Now, that’s mostly the GOP’s problem.
“Given that their base is pretty distant from the center,” Tanden said, the Republicans “have this natural disadvantage, in that the decision-makers on policy are responsible more to their base than the middle. I’m almost sympathetic, because I care about national policy on the progressive side, and we just don’t have the same issues. The most pro-immigration side in our party is closer to the moderates, and to the country.”